NHL

Toronto Maple Leafs: 2008-2009 Top 12 Prospects

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Shane Malloy, Prospect Insider
11/17/2008 10:40:30 AM
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When you consistently trade away your first round picks and prospects for immediate help sooner or later it will come back to haunt you. Despite that trend over the last decade, the Leafs have managed to develop a few players that have gone on to a reasonable NHL careers. The times and philosophy must change quickly for the Buds if they wish to compete consistently for the playoffs in the next decade. Fortunately for Leaf fans, Cliff Fletcher helped guide the Phoenix Coyotes in getting their farm system turned around so he should be able to do the same for Toronto. A higher priority and effort has been taken in prospect development by the Leafs organization as both Asst. General Manager Jeff Jackson and Director of Player Development Dallas Eakins are keeping a watchful eye.

Now they do have a few potential NHL players in the mix, but the overall depth and offensive talent is not considered elite up front or on defence. Only Jiri Tlusty, Nikolai Kulemin and maybe newly drafted Jimmy Hayes are projected as a top nine forwards at their peak and the remaining group of Dale Mitchell, Chad Rau, Ben Winnett, Matt Frattin, Chris DiDomenico are projected to be anywhere from third liners to journeymen AHL/ECHL players. It is now or never for Robbie Earl and he has found himself in the same situation as John Mitchell was last year - prove you can play or move aside. An advantage for the Leafs has been that many of their picks have played away from the media spotlight of Toronto in the NCAA or Europe.

The Maple Leafs tried to remain patient with their young defencemen over the last six seasons and some dividends began to show. The 2001 and 2002 drafts were looked upon to help turn around the franchise on defence but not as many blueliners had developed as they projected. They were hoping that two out of this group of Brendan Bell, Karl Pilar, Jay Harrison, Maxim Kondratiev and Staffan Kronvall would have made the jump to the NHL permanently. At least two of the defencemen from those drafts - Carlo Colaiacovo and Ian White - have graduated to the NHL and proven they can play some reasonable minutes, but they need to be replaced on the farm.

The jewel of the blueline now is Luke Schenn, who is still on the prospects list since he has not played enough NHL games as of yet to be removed. Other that Schenn, they only have second year pro Phil Oreskovic is on the list, so the Buds could use more depth. Anton Stralman - who has already played over 200 games as pro between Europe, AHL and the NHL - has been taken off the prospect list. It looks as though Stralman could develop into a solid NHL defenceman if he dedicates himself to his craft and the Leafs are patient.

The Buds do have good potential in goal with Justin Pogge and he could be a backup as early as next season under Toskala with a strong training camp and preseason. The other netminder in the system is ex-Red Deer Rebel James Reimer, who will need at least a of couple years in the pros before the truly know what they have. Losing Tuukka Rask in the Andrew Raycroft deal could come back and haunt the Leafs. It never hurts to have multiple goaltenders in the system and that will be something they should address over the next couple drafts.

Luke Schenn - Defence, 19 (1st round, 5th overall 2008)
Currently with Toronto (NHL)
The most complete defensive defenceman in last year's draft class and has the potential to become a number one defenceman and a team captain one day. He is built like a truck at 6-2 and 216 pounds, has shoulders like bowling balls and has no problem running you over and leaving you for dead. He has good hockey sense and could handle the tempo and speed of the NHL game comfortably while showing poise. His puck skills and passing are above average and he prefers to make safe smart decisions and move the puck up to the forwards as quick as possible. He can stickhandle well enough to hold off forecheckers and get the puck to the right option and does not panic with forwards draped all over him. He is an above average skater overall and his agility and quickness down low is good since he never seems to get beat by speedy forwards. If you want to knock him down or get him off the puck, you better come with power and velocity because it will be like hitting a brick wall. His slap and wrist shot has power and he does a good job of keeping it low and on the net without telegraphing it. But do not expect many goals at the pro level.

Away from the puck is where his true skills lay, as he can stifle even the most creative and talented players of his peer group. He breaks to position quickly by reading and anticipating the developing play and maintains great gap control on the rushing forward. He is almost impossible to beat one on one as he uses consistent body position with an active stick and rarely makes a bad decision in his own end. His sense of speed and angles and timing when plugging the gaps is at an NHL level especially when he keeps his feet moving and his head on a swivel. He can be guilty of trying to make up for his defence partner at times but is a rock overall. In front of the net he is a monster and takes it personal if you linger in his area and he will pound the opposition and give them a reason to leave. He is one tough hombre when it comes to the physical department and he can lay out some pretty devastating hits and has the ability to intimidate players. He shows all the intangibles you are looking for in a pro player with leadership, work ethic and maturity on and off the ice.

Jiri Tlusty - Left Wing, 20 (1st round 13th overall 2006)
Currently with Toronto (NHL/AHL)
This skilled Czech got his full taste of hockey last year as he spent 14 games with the AHL Marlies and 58 in the NHL. He did not look out of place as he posted 16 points under a weight of controversy and expectations. So far, Tlusty has not shot the lights out yet, but with time and patience it should happen. Perhaps he was rushed along in his development too quickly. Has the poise in the offensive zone needed to make consistent smart decisions with the puck. He can ward off defenders with nifty stickhandling and the vision to make tough passes look easy. Against men in the NHL and AHL, he has held his own physically for the most part but must continue to fight through checks and for loose pucks. Has the size at 6-0 and 209 pounds and the skating ability to be a top player on his team. He looked good and sometimes great in the AHL for his brief stints in the regular season and in the playoffs. He looked inconsistent as a rookie in the NHL, which is no surprise but he showed flashes. But he must work on his game without the puck and show more urgency.

Nikolai Kulemin - Right Wing, 22 (2nd round 44th overall 2006)
Currently with Toronto (NHL)
The young Russian winger had a good season last year in the Russian elite league considering his age. His 85 points in 142 games over the past three seasons showed his offensive upside against stronger, more mature professionals. Kulemin is a good skater with the acceleration and the top speed needed in today's game and once he adds additional power to his stride he will be more dangerous. His hockey sense and vision is very good which allows him to process information at a high rate under pressure. For a winger, he uses his options and linemates well in terms of puck movement and can make and handle tough passes in traffic. He shows the stickhandling ability to create time and space for himself and his linemates. He could use some strength to his 6-1, 184-pound frame to compete physically and not wear down as the season turn to spring. He does not back down, has a solid work ethic in all zones and is not afraid to get his nose dirty once in a while. He must continue to work on the nuances of the defensive game like all young players but has the tools to be top six forward. How quickly he adjusts to the speed and tempo and lack of space of the NHL game will determine his point production in the next two years.

Justin Pogge - Goalie, 22 (3rd round 90th overall 2004)
Currently with Toronto (AHL)
He's a tall goalie at 6-3 that has good athleticism and strength. It was a banner year three seasons ago in the WHL for Pogge when he is began to show dominance and composure especially during the WJC for Canada. When he remains compact and consistent in his mechanics, Pogge is hard to beat on the first and sometimes second or third shot. His rebound control and focus throughout the season has improved. His numbers were decent, but not great as a rookie netminder in the AHL in 2006-07 as he hovered below a .900 save percentage. But still needed a little work to do on his overall game. However, his work ethic and enthusiasm to learn are undeniable and that is the reason why he played better in his sophomore season with a 26-9-5 record and a .908 save percentage with four shutouts. Now he is not the fastest post to post, but as long as his crease mechanics (shot recovery, rebound control, angles along with his ability to track the puck) are consistent it will not be a determent. If given the time, he could become a NHL netminder and an asset to his team. And sometimes, people forget how long it takes most netminders to make it to the NHL and play consistently. Another full season as a starter in the AHL is exactly what he needs to take the next step in his development.

Dale Mitchell - Right Wing, 19 (3rd round 74th overall 2007)
Currently with Windsor (OHL)
He's a fire hydrant at 5 foot 10 and 205 pounds and has shown the ability to produce offense in the dirty areas of the ice with the skating ability and puck skills to be effective at the next level. He is most effective playing an up and down game with a heavy aggressive forecheck and jumping on rebounds and loose pucks. He has above average passing ability, vision and hockey sense and can play at the pro level and not be out of place. Has a heavy quick released wrist and slap shot and has a knack for scoring goals in ugly games. He is improving defensively and still needs to work on his overall decision making, keeping the feet moving and being patience, but he has the hustle and work ethic. He must watch his weight as he can gain quickly which affects his quickness and conditioning. Has shown a knack for scoring goals in bunches and his right handed shot could be an asset on a powerplay unit. Whether he can play at the NHL tempo and speed is still uncertain but the fact he can play with highly skilled forwards at the junior level certainly gives an indication it is possible.

Jimmy Hayes - Right Wing, 19 (2nd round 60th overall 2008)
Currently with Boston College (NCAA)
At 6 foot 5 and 210 pounds he could be a load for defencemen to handle down low and in front of the net at the pro level, especially when he grows into his body. He has the hockey sense to play with highly skilled forwards and could be a good compliment for a couple skilled players that need someone to create space and be a distraction. His puck skills overall are good but not elite when it comes to passing, receiving a pass and stickhandling. But Hayes has shown he has soft hands in close to convert on his chances. For his size, he skates well and can occasionally surprise you with his agility. When he gets his feet moving he can be a presence on the forecheck. His size and wing span allow him to protect the puck and cycle along the boards and wear defencemen out. Once he gets tutelage on how to be more effective in front of the net to create screens and tip shots, he could be a nice option on the power play unit. Like most young forwards, he needs work away from the puck when it comes to breaking to the right position, staying on the right side of the puck and keeping an active stick. He is not overtly aggressive, but he will bang and crash and make his presence felt. He uses his body quite well. His offensive potential is an unknown factor, but the Leafs have time to be patient with him. He is well coached at Boston College and could be there for all four years. It will be interesting to see how he progresses through his freshman season against a tougher competition in Hockey East.

Chris DiDomenico - Centre, 19 (6th round 164th overall 2007)
Currently with Saint John (QMJHL)
He's a skinny kid at 6 foot 1 and 175 pounds, but he's skilled and has shown underrated hockey sense and savvy in the offensive zone. DiDomenico has put up excellent offensive numbers in the QMJHL with 170 points in 140 games over the past two seasons along with 163 penalty minutes. His puck skills and passing ability are good and he seems to see the ice well at top speed. He does not have great skating ability, most likely due to his lack of core and lower body power. But he has a kind of in between speed which makes it difficult for defencemen to gauge at times. He has a quick released wrist shot and shows good accuracy even in tight areas. Despite his lack of girth, he does not get intimidated and gets his nose in the dirty areas of the ice. He could be a little more disciplined in his play. He will need to work on his defensive game, but he seems to have enough smarts and work ethic to handle and learn those responsibilities. He has been under appreciated and his lack of size and the fact he played in an offensive league in the QMJHL was part of the reason for being picked in the sixth round. The million dollar question is whether he can translate his game to the pros, take the responsibility and the commitment off the ice to be a pro and process the game at a higher tempo and speed. He will be a long term project for the Leafs.

Chad Rau - Centre, 21 (7th round 228th overall 2005)
Currently with Colorado College
He has quietly become one of the Leafs' most intriguing prospects with his consistent offensive improvement over the past three years. His 103 points in 121 games is impressive in his first three seasons, leading his team in scoring. At 5 foot 11 and 184 pounds, he does not have ideal size but makes up for it in other ways. He has good hockey sense, vision, passing ability and puck skills at the college level. He can also create offense whether he's on the rush or standing still. He can distribute the puck well and uses his linemates. He can score goals in bunches and owns a sneaky wrist shot and accurate slap shot. He's getting better defensively and uses his quickness to  make smart, safe plays in his own zone. Rau could be a sleeper pick with an outside chance of playing in the NHL, but certainly will play pro.

Ben Winnett - Left Wing, 19 (4th round 104th overall 2007)
Currently with Michigan (NCAA)
Considering he was a freshman at Michigan last season, he played well and produced 11 points in 40 games with some needed experience at the Frozen Four. He has good potential size at 6 foot 1 and 180 pounds and is willing to throw what weight around and get his nose dirty. He has some hockey sense and vision along with the puck skills to contribute offensively when given the chance. He's a decent skater overall and does not have any major flaws and motors when he gets his feet moving. He's not bad defensively, but like all young forwards he must recognize the finer details of playing without the puck. He will need all four years in Michigan under the tutelage of Red Berenson before taking the next step.

Matt Frattin - Right Wing, 20 (4th round 99th overall 2007)
Currently with North Dakota (NCAA)
At 5 foot 11 and 190 pounds, he has a stocky enough build to handle the rigors of a tough branded style of hockey. He shows enough hockey sense, puck skills and vision to contribute offensively at the college level and had good production as a freshman with 15 points in 42 games. He's a decent skater but needs a little more jump in his step to play in the AHL and especially the NHL. He also has a good wrist shot, with quick release and accuracy to go with a heavy slap shot. He will play physical when fighting for loose pucks and gets involved. He needs at least two or three seasons at North Dakota to work on his skating and defensive play before making the leap to the AHL.

Robert Earl - Left Wing, 23 (6th round 187th overall 2004)
Currently with Toronto (AHL)
The Leafs were hoping that this late round pick could turn into a steal, a winger who combines good mobility and some hockey sense. He's not afraid to go into the nasty areas for the puck. At 6 feet and 195 pounds, he is not overpowering when coming down the wing so he must pick his spots. He is a hard worker at times and so far he has not looked out of place in the AHL. Over the past two seasons he has improved from 30 points to 45 points over 67 and 65 games respectively. The mature forward has adjusted to the tempo and speed of play compared to college game, but has not shown the ability to score goals on a regular basis in the AHL. He must take his offensive game to another level next year in the AHL and prove he can contribute to make the jump to the NHL level. He lacks the consistency and perhaps the hockey sense to play anymore than a fourth line role.

Phil Oreskovic - defence, 21 (3rd round 82nd overall 2005)
Currently with Toronto (AHL)
He is very similar to Jay Harrison and that his skating may become an issue in the new NHL. However, he does have some enticing attributes for any NHL club. He is big at 6 foot 3 and 217 pounds, with a mean and nasty streak. He's considered dirty by some and is no stranger to the penalty box. He works hard and plays with heart and does some of little things right in his own zone. He has begun to adjust to the higher tempo game of the AHL and is finding his niche as a defensive defenceman. He will not be expected to contribute offensively and is best served to keep that part of his game simple. He needs a couple years in the AHL to improve and see if he has a chance at the NHL.

Toronto Maple Leafs - NHL Entry Draft Record (1997 - 2003)

When looking at the drafting and developing record of a NHL organization, it becomes an interesting blend of statistics and circumstances with perhaps some luck thrown in for good measure. Most of the time it's the general manager who receives kudos for a team's fortunes at the draft table. But it's usually never the case in today's NHL. For the most part, there are three aspects that make the whole process work. First it's the amateur scouting department's ability to evaluate and project talent - the most challenging aspect of all. Next is the organization's player development department, which must attempt to mold the prospects by giving the players tools to enhance their talents. Perhaps the most important aspect is the prospect's responsibility to pay the price and sacrifice - which generally requires a tremendous work ethic. If one of these aspects fails, then the likelihood of a prospect turning into an asset to his organization and having a NHL career becomes remote.

The reason for the analyzing the years from 1997 to 2003 is to first give each NHL organization five years to develop their prospects. After all, players from different leagues evolve differently. Secondly, the years 1997-2003 involve the players that should be the building blocks for the core of your team - as they will be in the 23-29 year old age range. What makes each organization unique is what they do with the picks they have, as management will often trade draft choices for immediate help on their NHL and AHL teams. Now some players may be real late bloomers and eventually make the criteria set in this analysis down the road, but at this stage it is fascinating to see the results.

Criteria of NHL games played that deem a player has been drafted and developed successfully

  Forwards - Defenceman Goaltenders
1997-2001 125-200 NHL Games required 51-100 NHL Games Played
2002-2003 100 NHL Games required 25-50 NHL Games Played
Pending Player - Represents a player who has a legitimate chance to make criteria

Toronto Maple Leafs Prospects 1997-2003

Year Draft Picks NHL Players Produced (Round/Pick)
1997 8 (2) (C) Adam Mair (4/84), Shawn Thornton (7/190)
1998 10 (2) (RW) Nikolai Antropov (1/10), (LW) Alexei Ponikarovsky (4/87)
1999 9 None
2000 10 (2) (C) Brad Boyes (1/24), (G) Mikael Tellqvist (3/70)
2001 12 (2) (D) Carlo Colaiacovo (1/17), (C) Kyle Wellwood (5/134)
2002 9 (3) (LW) Alex Steen (1/24), (C) Matt Stajan (2/57), (D) Ian White (6/191)
2003 6 None

Total: 7 yrs - 64 draft picks - 11 NHL Players = 17.1% success rate

Success in the first three rounds (1997-2003)

1st rnd Draft Choices: 5 total picks
Undeveloped Prospects: Luca Cereda
7yrs - 5 draft picks - 4 NHL Players = 80% success rate

2nd rnd Draft Choices: 6 total picks
Undeveloped Prospects - John Doherty, Karel Pilar, Kris Vernasky, Peter Reynolds, Petr Svoboda
7yrs - 6 draft picks - 1 NHL Players = 16.6% success rate

3rd rnd Choices: 10 total picks
Undeveloped Prospects - Jeff Farkas, Jamie Hodson, JF Racine, Nicolas Corbeil, Jay Harrison, Brendan Bell, Todd Ford, Martin Sagat, Dominic D'Amour
7yrs - 10 draft picks - 1 NHL Players = 10% success rate

Total: 7yrs - 21 draft picks - 6 NHL Players = 28.5% success rate in first 3 rounds

First Three Rounds - Developed vs. Prospects/NA vs. Euro
Developed players: (6) North American, (4) European
Undeveloped Prospects: (12) North American, (3) European

Success in the last six rounds (1997-2003)

4th rnd to 9th rnd Choices: 43 total picks
7yrs -43 draft picks - 5 NHL Players = 11.6 % success rate

Shane Malloy provides hockey prospect insight and analysis on his Prospect Insider feature on TSN.ca, Canada's leading sports website. Many sports networks, hockey magazines and major newspapers have drawn upon his expertise and knowledge. His passion for the game and involvement in grass roots hockey from the junior hockey to the National Hockey League is evident. He is currently a host and hockey event reporter on XM Sirius Satellite Radio (Home Ice 204) where he co-hosts a hockey radio show on Hockey Prospects and the Business of Hockey.

Prior to joining TSN, Malloy was the columnist-covering prospects for NHL.com for two years and a NHL and prospect columnist Fox Sports.com for six years.

This document is the intellectual property of Shane Malloy and cannot be used or duplicated in anyway without expressed written consent. Any use of this document without the expressed written consent of Shane Malloy will result in public exposure and legal prosecution.

Jiri Tlusty (Photo: Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)
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